Saved by the Bell (Wire): A Thrilling Tale of a Gentleman’s Sang-Froid

bells

“There was once, within my memory, an old gentleman who lived in Kent, and whose name, for very obvious reasons, I cannot mention, but he lived in Kent. He was a very remarkable old man, and chiefly because in the whole course of his very, very long life—for he was extremely old—he had never been known on any single occasion to want presence of mind; he had always done exactly the right thing, and he had always said exactly the right word, at exactly the right moment. The old gentleman lived alone. That is to say, he had never married, and he had no brother or sister or other relation living with him, but he had a very old housekeeper, a very old butler, a very old gardener—in fact, all the old-fashioned retinue of a very old-fashioned household, and, bound together by mutual respect and affection, the household was a very harmonious one.

“Now I must describe what the old gentleman’s house was like. Upstairs, there was a very long passage, which ended in a blank wall. At the end of the passage, on the left, was a dressing-room, and on the right was a bedroom, the room in which the old gentleman himself slept. The bedroom was entered by a very heavy swing-door, which could only be opened from the inside—that is to say, the old gentleman carried the key upon his watch-chain, and let himself in and out. When he wished house-maids or other persons to go in or out, he left the door open; but when he was inside and shut the door, no one could come in unless he opened the door to them. People may say ‘it was very eccentric;’ it was very eccentric: but the old gentleman was very peculiar; it was the way he chose to live: at any rate, it was a fact. Through the bedroom, opposite the door into the passage, was another door which led into the plate-room. This was also a very heavy swing-door, which could only be opened from the outside, and very often in summer the old gentleman would set it open at night, because he thought it gave more air to the bedroom. Everything depends upon your attending to and understanding the geography of these rooms. You see they were all en suite cross-wise. If you stood in the plate-room, and all the doors were open, you would see the dressing-room, and vice versâ.

“One morning when the old gentleman came down to breakfast, he found upon his plate a note. He opened it, and it contained these words—‘Beware, you are in the hands of thieves and robbers.’ He was very much surprised, but he had such presence of mind that he threw the note into the fire and went on buttering his toast, having his breakfast. Inwardly he kept a sharp look-out upon all that was going on. But there was nothing special going on whatever. It was very hot summer weather; the old gardener was mowing the lawn, the old housekeeper cooked the dinner, the old butler brought it in: no, there was nothing whatever especial going on.

“That night, when the old gentleman went to bed, he took particular care to examine his room, and to see that his heavy swing-door was well fastened, so that no one could come in to disturb him. And when he had done this, he went to bed and fell asleep, and slept very well till the next morning, for nothing happened, nothing whatever.

“When the next morning came, he rang his bell for his hot water as usual, but nobody came. He rang, and rang, and rang again, but still nobody came. At last he opened his bedroom door, and went out down the passage to the head of the staircase, and called to the butler over the banisters. The butler answered. ‘Why did you not attend to my bell?’ said the old gentleman. ‘Because no bell rang,’ answered the butler. ‘Oh, but I have rung very often,’ said the old gentleman; ‘go downstairs again, and I will pull the bell again; watch if it rings.’ So the butler went downstairs, and the old man pulled the bell, but no bell rang. ‘Then,’ said the old gentleman, ‘you must send for the bell-hanger at once; one cannot live with broken bells; that sort of thing cannot he allowed to go on in the house,’—and he dressed and went down to breakfast.

“While he was eating his breakfast, the old gentleman found he had forgotten his pocket-handkerchief; and went up to his room to get it. And such was the promptitude of that old-fashioned household, that the village being close to the house, and the bell-hanger living in the village, the master’s orders had already been obeyed, and the bell-hanger was already in the room, standing on a ladder, arranging the new wire of the bell. In old-fashioned houses, you know, the bell wires come through the wall and go round the top of the room, so that you can see them, and so it was in this house in Kent. You do not generally perhaps observe how many wires there are in your room, but it so happened that, as he lay in bed, the old gentleman had observed those in his, and there were three wires. Now he looked, and there were four wires. Yes, there was no doubt there were four wires going round his room. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘now I know exactly what is going to happen,’ but he gave no outward sign of having discovered anything, and he went down and finished his breakfast.

“All that day everything went on as usual. It was a dreadfully hot day in July—very sultry indeed. The old gentleman was subject to bad nervous headaches, and in the afternoon he pretended to be not quite so well. When dinner-time came, he was very suffering indeed. He spoke of it to the butler. He said, ‘It is only one of my usual attacks; I have no doubt it is the weather. I shall be better to-morrow; but I will go to bed early.’ And towards half-past nine he went upstairs. He left the door of the bedroom ajar, so that any one could come in; he set the door of the plate-room wide open, for the sake of more air to the bedroom, and he went to bed. When he was in bed, he rang the bell, the new bell that the bell-hanger had put up that morning. The butler came. The old gentleman gave some orders about horses for the next day, and then said, ‘Do not disturb me in the morning. I had better sleep off my headache; I will ring when I want to get up. You can draw the curtains round the bed, and then shut the door.’ So the butler drew the curtains round the bed, and went out, shutting the door after him.

“As soon as the old gentleman heard the footsteps of the butler die away down the passage, he dressed himself completely from head to foot; he took two loaded pistols and a blunderbuss, He stealthily opened the heavy swing-door of the bedroom. He let himself out into the dark passage. He shut to the bedroom door behind him. It fastened with a click; he could not go in himself any more, and he crossed the passage, and stood in the dark dressing-room with the door open.

“It was still very early, and eleven o’clock came, and nothing happened; and twelve came and nothing happened; and one o’clock came and nothing happened. And the old gentleman—for he was already very old—began to feel very much exhausted, and he began to say to himself; ‘Perhaps after all I was wrong! Perhaps after all it is a hallucination; but I will wait till two o’clock.’

“At half-past one o’clock there was a sound of stealthy footsteps down the passage, and three figures passed in front of him and stood opposite the bedroom door. They were so near that he could have shot them every one; but he said to himself; ‘No, I’ll wait, I’ll wait and see what is going to happen.’ And as he waited, the light from the dark lantern which the first man carried fell upon their faces, and he recognised them. And the first figure was the butler, and the second figure was the bell-hanger, and the third figure, from having been long a magistrate on a London bench, he recognised as the most notorious ruffian of a well-known London gang. He heard the ruffian say to the butler, ‘I say, it’s no use mincing this kind of thing: no use doing this kind of thing by halves: better put him out of the way at once, and go on to the plate afterwards.’—‘Oh no,’ said the butler, ‘he has been a good master to me; I’ll never consent to that. Take all he has; he’ll never wake, not he; but you can’t do him any harm; I’ll never consent to that.’ And they wrangled about it for some time, but at last the butler seemed to get the better, and the ruffian had to consent to his terms.

“Then exactly what the old gentleman had expected happened. The butler, standing on tiptoe, could just reach the four wires of the bells, which came through into the low passage above the bedroom door. As the butler reached the lowest of the wires, and by leaning his weight upon it, pulled it downwards, it was seen that the wire was connected with the bolt of the door on the inside; the bolt rolled up, and the heavy swing-door of the bedroom, of which the hinges were well oiled for the occasion, rolled open. ‘There,’ said the butler, as they passed into the room, ‘master always sleeps like that. Curtains drawn all round the bed. He’ll not hear anything, not he.’ And they all passed in through the open door of the plate-room. The old man waited till they were entirely occupied with the plate-chest, and then he slipped off his slippers, and, with a hop, skip, and a jump, he darted across the room, and—bang! they were all caught in a trap. He banged to the heavy swing-door of the plate-room, which could only be opened from the outside.

“Having done that—people may believe it or not, but I maintain that it is true—the old man had such presence of mind, that he undressed, went to bed, and slept soundly till the next morning. Even if this were not so, till the next morning he did not send for the police, and the consequence was that when he did send for the police, and the door was opened, the following horrible scene revealed itself: The ruffian had tried to make a way of escape through the roof, had stuck fast, and was dreadfully mangled in the attempt: the bell-hanger had hung himself from the ceiling: and the butler was a drivelling idiot in the corner, from the horror of the night he had gone through.”

The Story of My Life, Augustus Hare

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Augustus Hare tells us that he heard this story from Dr. Stephen Lushington, an eminent Judge and MP. Hare, a travel writer, gifted storyteller, and semi-professional invalid and complainer, had a life more interesting than the title of his book would suggest. As a child he was given away by his parents to be adopted by his aunt, as casually as one would hand over a parcel.  Here is how he describes the transaction:

“I was born–the youngest child of the family, and a most unwelcome addition to the population of this troublesome world, as both my father and Mrs. Hare were greatly annoyed at the birth of another child, and beyond measure disgusted that it was another son….It occurred to August Hare’s widow [Maria, aunt and Godmother to the writer] as just possible that my parents might be induced to give me up to her altogether, to live with her as her own child. In July she wrote her petition, and was almost surprised at the glad acceptance it met with. Mrs. Hare’s answer was very brief–‘My dear Maria, how very kind of you! Yes, certainly, the baby shall be sent as soon as it is weaned; and, if anone else would like one, would you kindly recollect that we have others.'”

Throughout his life he was neglected, browbeaten, and misunderstood by those from whom he had a right to expect kindness and consideration. For example, certain foods made him ill. He was told that he was being singular and forced to eat the offending articles. Then he was berated for being sick. Serious illnesses were met with starvation, tracts, and sermons about patient endurance of suffering instead of medical advice. Despite his delicate health and his selfish family, he travelled widely and became a writer with a superb ear for dialog, an eye for eccentricity, and a gift for telling the ghostly tale. We shall no doubt hear more from Mr Hare in the coming Hallowe’en season.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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One thought on “Saved by the Bell (Wire): A Thrilling Tale of a Gentleman’s Sang-Froid

  1. Pingback: The Ensign Sees a Horror: c. 1860 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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